“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God.” (Matthew 5:3)
Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount is arguably the most countercultural set of teachings in history. It consists of eight pronouncements (often called “beattitudes”) about who truly is blessed in God’s view. It begins with the pivotal statement about the poor in spirit, after which are statements about the blessedness of those who mourn and the persecuted. These pronouncements suggest the opposite of what our culture presupposes, that those who are blessed are the strong, the euphoric, and the powerful. Overall, it seems that the Christian God has a special connection with those who suffer and are oppressed. Ultimately, Christianity teaches that suffering is an important aspect of life. It is not something to “push away,” but is something to “be with” in order to be ultimately transformed.
Jesus seems to embody these teachings personally. The prophet Isaiah points to Jesus as someone who would be “despised” and “rejected,” “a man of suffering, and familiar with pain” (53:3). He spent the most time with the physically and mentally sick, and those on the fringes of acceptance in society. In the end, Jesus personally yields to deep sorrow for a greater purpose, for resurrection.
Another way this emphasis is revealed in the Bible is in Psalm 23. For instance, the Psalmist writes:
“The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing. He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters, he refreshes my soul. He guides me along the right paths for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me” (1-4).
As Rabbi Harold Kushner points out, what is most striking about this Psalm is how the pronoun changes. God is impersonal (“he”) until the individual walks through the valley, at which point God becomes personally involved (“you”).
One way in which this line of thought informs my life is in helping me to accept and benefit from suffering. Like most, I would prefer not to suffer. Sometimes, this means I “push away” pain. However, it seems that suffering is inherent in being human, and points to a broader need I have for Something More. It provides a route for personal and spiritual growth, if I allow it. One way in which this occurs for me is to allow myself to feel pain, and to pray through what that pain might want to teach me. This emphasis has parallels in recent developments in cognitive therapy, particulary acceptance and commitment therapy.
The above teachings also make me pause as to what I am trying to accomplish in life. Although my culture would have me strive for strength, euphoria, and power, God seems to suggest these ends are not necessarily the ultimate goals. Rather, God desires me to “act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with [Him]” (Micah 6:8).
Finally, these teachings encourage me to regard all people as equal. Whereas there is a tendency to favor those who are strong, happy, and powerful, I am reminded that everyone has value. In particular, I feel a calling to form relationships with and uplift those who are sick and marginalized in society, recognizing that I have experiences of being “sick” and “marginalized” in my own ways. Rather than acting based on my perceived “ingroups,” relative to perceived “outgroups,” I strive to identify with all people, as best I can, and to treat them as I would want to be treated if I were in their shoes. Everyone has their strengths and weaknesses. I am convinced that all people have good and evil inside. As Elie Wiesel suggests:
“We must not see any person as an abstraction. Instead, we must see in every person a universe with its own secrets, with its own treasures, with its own sources of anguish, and with some measure of triumph.”